Shades of Gray by Brooke McKinley

Why I read it:  I’ve had this one in my TBR for quite a while now, having picked it up as soon as the review by Sarah Franz went up at DA – her recommendations are (mostly) gold for me.  It came fast on the heels of Zero at the Bone which I read first.  The storylines sounded similar and I didn’t want the two books to “bleed” into each other – so I waited a while.  And then I forgot. 
What its about: Miller Sutton is an FBI agent on the edge of burnout who wants to nail a drug lord by the name of Hinestroza.  He’s been watching Danny Butler, a cog in Hinestroza’s wheel for 9 months and when the book begins, Danny has just been arrested – after a routine traffic stop, a gun was found in the glove box of his car, breaching his parole and Miller is leaning on him to roll over on Hinestroza.  Danny reluctantly agrees and it is Miller’s task to debrief Danny and prepare him for giving evidence, protect him so he stays alive until the trial and then pass him onto the hands of the US Marshalls for the Witness Protection Programme.   While spending so much time with Danny, Miller discovers that Danny’s much more than just a criminal.  But it’s not as easy as falling in love – there’s a psycho assassin (Madrigal) after him on Hinestroza’s orders and, if he lives that long, once Danny goes into WitSec he’ll never see Miller again.
What worked for me:I really enjoyed this book.  It was gritty and realistic (for the most part); it was a full length novel which meant I got a fully fleshed out story; the prose was lyrical in places and I bought into the emotion of the tale which (because this is a romance, after all) finished with a satisfying and believable HEA. 
Speaking of lyrical, here’s an example of what I mean:
He understood the impact of his question, his words falling like stones into a shadowy lake – on the surface things return to normal but in the deep the landscape is forever altered.
I liked watching Miller develop and change throughout the course of the book while staying true to his basic character.  He started the book heading toward burnout in his job, deep in the closet and trying to make himself conform to his idea of who he thought he should be.  I liked the irony that his job, which included interrogating suspects to get to the truth of matters meant that he was becoming increasingly unable to hide from himself.  I liked watching him begin to come to grips with being gay and sharing his emotions with Danny and those around him. 
Miller’s voice broke and he lowered his head, pressing his thumbs into his closed eyelids, exhausted by the effort of giving voice to what was private within him.

I liked Danny too.  I wondered how I would, but I did.  Ms. McKinley took me on a journey where I saw how Danny had fallen into something he couldn’t get out of.  I liked how she explained the ambiguous nature of his relationship with Hinestroza – the loyalty to him because Hinestroza “cared” for him in a way he hadn’t experienced before – things like making sure he was fed and clothed (it was a kind of messed up father/son thing I think) and the fear because Hinestroza was a very very bad man who didn’t blink an eye when he ordered someone tortured and murdered to make a point – and Danny always knew that whatever “care” Hinestroza showed him, Hinestroza wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed if he thought he had a reason.
And, I liked this:

“It’s like this old patchwork quilt my momma used to have.  It came from her grandma or maybe her great-grandma.  I can’t remember, anyway, it was sort of a family scrapbook, I guess.  Each piece on that quilt meant something. And some of those pieces were the damn ugliest things you’ve ever seen – old brown corduory worn to the nub or stained pieces of cotton you woudn’t want to use as a rag to clean your bathroom floor. But some of the pieces were so beautiful they almost hurt my eyes to look at when I was a kid.  White silk from a wedding dress or the red velvet from a bady’s first Christmas coat.” Ellis paused, perching his glasses back on his nose.  “That’s the best you can hope for, Danny. That your life turns out like that patchwork quilt. That you can add some bright, sparkling pieces to the dirty, stained ones you ‘ve got so far. That in the end, the bright patches might take up more space on your quilt than the dark ones.”  Ellis stared at Danny, making sure he was listening. “That’s the point.”

A word about the sex.  The book has sex scenes – I’d rate them along the same lines as Eve/Roarke in the In Death books or many of the other M/F books around – it’s just that the scenes were between two men.  

And finally, (and for those that know me, this next statement will come as a surprise) –  I also liked that the book didn’t end with absolutely everything tied with a red ribbon.  Usually, I’m not like that.  But this was a different kind of book – it was about things NOT being perfect and therefore, the ending fit.  Don’t get me wrong – we DO get a HEA but it’s clear that both men are still “works in progress” – I did believe that they would make it for the long haul and I was very glad of it.

What didn’t (work for me):It’s not so much that it didn’t work but that I questioned whether it would happen – would Miller really be allowed to stay on the investigation when he was clearly getting into a personal relationship with an informant?  Would he really be basically left alone with Danny for so long? Wouldn’t there be a team of people?  Similarly, the stuff with Madrigal at the end was a little unbelievable – but, I was willing to go with all of it for the sake of the story.  I guess because I found the rest of the story to be so realistic, those things stood out to me.  But, most stories have something “unreal” in them and these things weren’t that big a deal and they didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.
What else?  I’m glad I waited to read this one.  I enjoyed Zero at the Bone but, by the end, I was having trouble suspending my disbelief and the book’s ending was like a Status Quo song – it kept going too long.  The plot of the two books were similar – in ZatB, it was a hit man whose job was to kill a witness and ended up protecting him instead and they fell in love and had to work out a way to be together (alive) by the end of the book to get their HEA.  This one, is the FBI agent and the witness/informant but both have one character who’s a “good guy” and the other is morally – ambiguous? corrupt? – something anyway. In both books the author’s have the challenge of making the “bad” half of the couple sympathetic so that the reader roots for the HEA.  And in both, the characters need to get out of a seemingly impossible situation to both stay alive at the end AND be together.  Having read both books, I’m glad I read ZatB first – because SoG was much better IMO.  It would have been a big let down to read ZatB second because those challenges, I thought, were met much more convincingly in SoG – it made sense that an FBI agent would try to turn a member of a drug lord’s organisation to get a conviction against the kingpin.  D, in ZatB was a hitman “with a heart” – there’s just a necessary suspension of disbelief you have to buy into to go with the story.  Some of it was trite and cliched and it was too much for my WTF radar.  That’s not to say that I didn’t like it – I did (especially Jack’s sense of humour), but SoG was better.  Much.  Also, Danny, while having been a criminal since getting sucked into Hinestroza’s vortex at age 18 was more sympathetic to me.  He wasn’t a murderer and he (somewhat surprisingly) didn’t do drugs – he was a courier.  Yes, he was a bad man – he’d been to jail 3 times, he contributed to  the addiction of many and no doubt to some/many(?) deaths due to his part in the chain of distribution.  There’s no backing away from that in the book – it never tries to paint him as anything other than what he is.  But what we do get is the extra.  We get the backstory and the explanation (but not an excuse).  We find out other things which paint a rounder picture.  To use the book’s own words, we get to see his “quilt” and it’s not all black and evil and skanky.  I wanted him to be a better man and by the end of the book, he not only wanted that too, he’d found a path to it.  He was still struggling and would always be a convicted felon who’d worked for a drug lord.  He’d always have the scars on his body and his conscience but he found a way to be more than that too – what had stopped him in the past was the belief that he never could be anything better and Miller gave to him the ability to see that he could.     
So, while I’d recommend both books, if someone were only able to choose one, I’d say get Shades of Gray.

Grade:  A

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